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The Grim Reaper Closes Campus

October 8, 1918


During the waning days of World War I, the most lethal and efficient killer was neither the machine gun nor poison gas. Instead, it was an extremely contagious strain of influenza called the “Spanish Flu” that some authorities believe originated at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918. But wherever it started, the airborne disease rapidly became a deadly epidemic of worldwide proportions – and Lawrence was hardly immune.

On October 7, 1918, following an “unusual number of absences” that morning, KU Chancellor Frank Strong called an emergency meeting of his cabinet to discuss how best to combat the influenza outbreak. “We do not know how much influenza there may be in Lawrence,” said Strong, but “we’re trying to get ahead of it. If influenza is here in any extent, we should take precautionary measures at once.”

The next day, acting on the direction of the Kansas State Board of Health, Strong ordered the closure of KU for at least a week beginning at noon. Students, were “FORBIDDEN to leave Lawrence,” since doing so “would spread infection.” Strong further decreed that students “should go to bed immediately on developing symptoms of any illness,” and also required them to “inform the University Hospital or their physician if feeling ill.” In addition, students were prohibited from gathering in large groups, attending theatres and movie houses, and from holding any type of public meeting, for fear that this airborne disease would spread more quickly. Strict compliance, Strong insisted, was “a patriotic duty” students were honor-bound to obey. “Prompt compliance,” the Chancellor hoped, “will prevent any serious epidemic in Lawrence.”

Initially, only 92 KU students out of the approximately 3,000 on campus reported any symptoms, although that number would jump to 130 the next day. In a related action, the commander of KU’s Student Army Training Corps (SATC), Captain Bruno T. Scher, moved to shut down Lawrence movie houses. Scher sharply criticized the manager of the Varsity and Bowersock theatres for refusing to close because he feared the prospect of losing $200 as a result. “I assured him,” Scher reportedly told an SATC contingent on McCook Field the morning of the shutdown, “that he probably would see a dozen funerals within the week if he insisted on keeping his theatres open.” Scher stationed uniformed SATC members at theatre entrances to ensure they remained closed.

Also on October 8, Dr. Rupert Blue, Surgeon General of the United States, issued detailed information about influenza and guidelines on how best to deal with the epidemic. The University Daily Kansan published his message, saying “it is the duty of every American to know all he can about this very serious disease. It is such an insidious, such a tricky ailment that approaches under the guise of a slight cold … that it should be recognized and the means of preventing it and combating it fostered and familiarized by everyone.”

Dr. Blue stressed that since influenza was spread by person-to-person contact, the need to keep those infected isolated from others was paramount. “In guarding against the disease,” he advised, “It is important that the body be kept strong and able to fight disease germs. This can be done by having a proper proportion of work, play, and rest, by keeping the body well-clothed, and by eating sufficient wholesome, and properly selected food.” Most importantly, those feeling ill were instructed to seek medical treatment immediately and avoid crowded areas.

In a reflection of wartime antipathy toward the Germans, the Kansan added that this disease “should be called Hun influenza, because it is a slick, sly, tricky and heartless ailment.” (Allied propaganda called the Germans “Huns,” and this anti-German type of description for influenza was common throughout the United States.) As the disease worsened and as the cause, let alone the remedy, remained a mystery to American doctors, there was a great deal of suspicion that German saboteurs had planted influenza in the US.

The man most responsible for this paranoia was Lt. Col. Philip Doane, head of the Health and Sanitation Section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, who suggested this possibility in September 1918. “It would be quite easy,” he told a Washington, DC, audience, “for one of these German agents to turn loose influenza germs in a theater or some other place where large numbers of persons are assembled. The Germans have started epidemics in Europe, and there is no reason why they should be particularly gentle with America.” Doane’s unsubstantiated remarks only made the crisis worse.

Originally anticipated to last a week, the KU influenza closure dragged on for an entire month, becoming something of a “siege” as the Graduate Magazine put it. By the time the University reopened on November 8, nearly 1,000 faculty, students, and staff had been afflicted with the disease and 24 KU people had died from it. To augment limited medical facilities and an insufficient numbers of doctors, the recently constructed SATC barracks became makeshift hospitals. KU Med students were pressed into service, and many young women assumed roles as “amateur nurses,” caring for patients and gathering sheets, towels, and other supplies in town. “Night and day the volunteers went about their work,” the Kansan later noted, “and hundreds of boys are now testifying to their knowledge and experience.”

They were the lucky ones. By the time the epidemic had finally passed in mid-November 1918, the “Spanish Flu” killed over 600,000 Americans; it was the single worst human disaster in US history. Worldwide, influenza was responsible for the deaths of at least 25 million people in 1918-19, with some estimates being as high as 37 million, making the carnage and destruction of World War I pale in comparison.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For coverage of the first days of the influenza crisis at KU (before the University was closed), see University Daily Kansan, October 7, 1918, p. 1; University Daily Kansan, October 8, 1918, pp. 1,4; and University Daily Kansan, October 9, 1918, pp. 1-2. Also, The Graduate Magazine, vol. 17:1 (October 1918), p. 21, and The Graduate Magazine, vol. 17:2 (November 1918), p. 45. After the University reopened, see University Daily Kansan, November 4, 1918, pp. 1-2. Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), p. 115, contains a brief account of how KU dealt with the influenza outbreak.]